GEORGETOWN (AFP) – Guyana has asked the United Naitons’s highest court to stop a Venezuelan referendum on whether or not to annex the oil-rich Essequibo region both South American nations lay claim to.
Venezuela has for decades argued that the 160,000-square-kilometre region administered by Guyana should fall within its borders – a contention that has brought the neighbours before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.
The dispute has intensified since ExxonMobil discovered oil in Essequibo in 2015.
Tiny Guyana has the world’s biggest reserves of crude per capita, while its neighbour sits on the largest proven reserves overall.
Venezuela recently announced it would hold a referendum on the issue on December 3, a move Guyana – which dragged Caracas to the ICJ in 2018 – described as illegal.
On Tuesday, the government in Georgetown denounced what it called “Venezuela’s sinister plan for seizing Guyanese territory.”
It said it sought the ICJ’s “urgent protection” in a request filed on Monday for an order for Venezuela “not to proceed” with the plebiscite as is. In its filing, Guyana argued the referendum’s only purpose was to “obtain responses that would support Venezuela’s decision to abandon” the ICJ proceedings and allow for its “formally annexing and integrating” Essequibo into Venezuela.
The Essequibo region makes up more than two-thirds of Guyana and is home to 125,000 of its 800,000 residents, according to a decade-old census.
A former Dutch and British colony, Guyana said its border with Venezuela was fixed by an arbitration tribunal in 1899.
But Venezuela said the Essequibo river to the east of the region forms a natural frontier recognised at the time of independence from Spain. The proposed wording for the referendum describes the border as “fraudulently imposed” in 1899 and suggests the granting of Venezuelan citizenship to the people of an annexed Essequibo.
Given the urgency of the matter, Guyana asked the court to schedule an oral hearing “at the earliest possible date in advance of December 3.”
Caracas, for its part, slammed its neighbour’s petition which it said “if it weren’t so tragic, would be laughable”.